Fear of terrorism and the threat of more airplane hijackings in the Middle East are keeping pilgrims from Jesus' birthplace this year.
Haya Fisher of the Israeli Tourism Ministry's pilgrimage division said Sunday that the number of Christmas pilgrims in the Holy Land is down by at least 20% this year because of recent terrorist attacks, including the pirating of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Terrorist attacks in and near the occupied West Bank have killed 17 Israelis this year and prompted stricter security measures and a more visible military presence in the area.
"People, especially Americans, are deterred by all this violence," Fisher told the Associated Press.
She said the lack of Americans was responsible for most of the decline of nearly 5,000 Christian pilgrims from 1984, when 20,000 foreigners came for the Christmas holidays.
Standing near the towering, gold-laced Christmas tree next to Manger Square's police station, Wanda Vogel of Dot Lake, Alaska, said her family tried to talk her out of traveling. "I just told them that God goes wherever I go, and I'm going," she said.
Police, implementing tight security measures for the holiday, blocked a main road leading to the square with metal barricades, and Israel's green military jeeps cruised the city.
Ella May Lower of Eureka, Calif., said guns and Christmas are not compatible. "It's surprising to see soldiers all over the place. It's hard to believe there are things going on that hurt people," she said.
Lawrence Hanania, 27, a Palestinian who opened a hamburger shop near the holy sites this month, blamed the Arab-Israeli conflict for the tourist slump.
"I wish people would feel that the city where Jesus was born is peaceful, but we have too many political problems here," he said.